Vidal and Buckley, 1968
Noam Chomsky vs. William F. Buckley Debate : Part 1 of 2
By DOUGLAS MARTIN | NYT | Published: February 27, 2008
William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn.
Mr Buckley, 82, suffered from diabetes and emphysema, his son Christopher said, although the exact cause of death was not immediately known. He was found at his desk in the study of his home, his son said. “He might have been working on a column,” Mr. Buckley said.
Mr. Buckley’s winningly capricious personality, replete with ten-dollar words and a darting tongue writers loved to compare with an anteater’s, hosted one of television’s longest-running programs, “Firing Line,” and founded and shepherded the influential conservative magazine, “National Review.”
He also found time to write at least 45 books, ranging from sailing odysseys to spy novels to celebrations of his own dashing daily life, and edit five more. He published a book-length history of the magazine in 2007.
The more than 4.5 million words of his 5,600 biweekly newspaper columns, “On the Right,” would fill 45 more medium-sized books.
Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
To Mr. Buckley’s enormous delight, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the historian, termed him “the scourge of liberalism.”
In remarks at National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his biweekly edition — “without the wrapper.”
“You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism,” Mr. Reagan said.
“And then, as if that weren’t enough,” the president continued, “you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”
The liberal advance had begun with the New Deal, and so accelerated in the next generation that Lionel Trilling, one of America’s leading intellectuals, wrote in 1950: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
Mr. Buckley declared war on this liberal order, beginning with his blistering assault on Yale as a traitorous den of atheistic collectivism immediately after his graduation (with honors) from the university.
“All great biblical stories begin with Genesis,” George Will wrote in the National Review in 1980. “And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”
Mr. Buckley weaved the tapestry of what became the new American conservatism from libertarian writers like Max Eastman, free market economists like Milton Friedman, traditionalist scholars like Russell Kirk and anti-Communist writers like Whittaker Chambers. But the persuasiveness of his argument hinged not on these perhaps arcane sources, but on his own tightly argued case for a conservatism based on the national interest and a higher morality.
His most receptive audience became young conservatives first energized by Barry Goldwater’s emergence at the Republican convention in 1960 as the right-wing alternative to Nixon. Some met in Sept., 1960, at Mr. Buckley’s Connecticut estate to form Young Americans for Freedom. Their numbers — and influence — grew.
Nicholas Lemann observed in Washington Monthly in 1988 that during the Reagan administration “the 5,000 middle-level officials, journalists and policy intellectuals that it takes to run a government” were “deeply influenced by Buckley’s example.” He suggested that neither moderate Washington insiders nor “Ed Meese-style provincial conservatives” could have pulled off the Reagan tax cut and other reforms.
Speaking of the true believers, Mr. Lemann continued, “Some of these people had been personally groomed by Buckley, and most of the rest saw him as a role model.”
Mr. Buckley rose to prominence with a generation of talented writers fascinated by political themes, names like Mailer, Capote, Vidal, Styron and Baldwin. Like the others, he attracted controversy like a magnet. Even conservatives — from members of the John Birch Society to disciples of conservative author Ayn Rand to George Wallace to moderate Republicans — frequently pounced on him.
Many of varied political stripes came to see his life as something of an art form — from racing through city streets on a motorcycle to a quixotic campaign for mayor of New York in 1965 to startling opinions like favoring the decriminalization of marijuana. He was often described as liberals’ favorite conservative, particularly after suavely hosting an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on public television in 1982.
Norman Mailer may indeed have dismissed Mr. Buckley as a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row,” but he could not help admiring his stage presence.
“No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear,” Mr. Mailer said in an interview with Harpers in 1967.
Mr. Buckley’s vocabulary, sparkling with phrases from distant eras and described in newspaper and magazine profiles as sesquipedalian (characterized by the use of long words) became the stuff of legend. Less kind commentators called him “pleonastic” (use of more words than necessary).
And, inescapably, there was that aurora of pure mischief. In 1985, David Remnick, writing in The Washington Post, said, “He has the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”
William Francis Buckley Jr., was born in Manhattan on Nov. 24, 1925, the sixth of the 10 children of Aloise Steiner Buckley and William Frank Buckley Jr. (John B. Judis relates in his 1988 biography, “William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint Of the Conservative,” that he was christened with the middle name Francis instead of Frank, according to his sister, Patricia, because there was no saint named Frank. Later, in “Who’s Who” entries and elsewhere, he used Frank.)
The elder Mr. Buckley made a fortune in the oil fields of Mexico, and educated his children with personal tutors at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Conn. They also attended exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France.
Young William absorbed his family’s conservatism along with its deep Catholicism. At 6, he wrote the King of England demanding he repay his country’s war debt. At 14, he followed his brothers to the Millbrook School, a preparatory school 15 miles across the New York state line from Sharon.
In his spare time at Millbrook, young Bill typed schoolmates’ papers for them, charging $1 a paper, with a 25-cent surcharge for correcting the grammar.
He did not neglect politics, showing up uninvited to a faculty meeting to complain about a teacher abridging his right to free speech and ardently opposing United States’ involvement in World War II. His father wrote him to suggest he “learn to be more moderate in the expression of your views.”
He graduated from Millbrook in 1943, then spent a half a year at the University of Mexico studying Spanish, which had been his first language. He served in the Army from 1944 to 1946, and managed to make second lieutenant after first putting colleagues off with his mannerisms.
“I think the army experience did something to Bill,” his sister, Patricia, told Mr. Judis. “He got to understand people more.”
Mr. Buckley then entered Yale where he studied political science, economics and history; established himself as a fearsome debater; was elected chairman of the Yale Daily News, and joined Skull and Bones, the most prestigious secret society.
As a senior, he was given the honor of delivering the speech for Yale’s Alumni Day celebration, but was replaced after the university’s administration objected to his strong attacks on the university. He responded by writing his critique in the book that brought him to national attention, in part because he gave the publisher, Regnery, $10,000 to advertise it.
Published in 1951, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’” charged the powers at Yale with having an atheistic and collectivist bent and called for the firing of faculty members who advocated values not in accord with those that the institution should be upholding — which was to say, his own.
Among the avalanche of negative reviews, the one in Atlantic by McGeorge Bundy, a Yale graduate, was conspicuous. He found the book “dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author.”
But Peter Viereck, writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review viewed the book as “a necessary counterbalance.”
After a year in the Central Intelligence Agency in Mexico City (his case officer was E. Howard Hunt, who went on to win celebrity for his part in the Watergate break-in), Mr. Buckley went to work for the American Mercury magazine, but resigned after spotting anti-Semitic tendencies in the magazine.
Over the next few years, Mr. Buckley worked as a freelance writer and lecturer, and wrote a second book with L. Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law. Published in 1954, “McCarthy and His Enemies” was a sturdy defense of the senator from Wisconsin who was then in the throes of his campaign against communists, liberals and the Democratic Party.
In 1955, Mr. Buckley started National Review as voice for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order” with a $100,000 gift from his father. The first issue, which came out in November, claimed the publication “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”
It proved it by lining up squarely behind Southern segregationists, saying blacks should be denied the vote. After some conservatives objected, Mr. Buckley suggested instead that both uneducated whites and blacks should not be allowed to vote.
Mr. Buckley did not accord automatic support to Republicans, starting with Eisenhower’s campaign for re-election in 1956. National Review’s tepid endorsement: “We prefer Ike.”
Circulation increased from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 at the time of Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, and leveled off to around 100,000 in 1980. It is now 155,000. The magazine has always had to be subsidized by readers’ donations.
Along with offering a forum to big-gun conservatives like Russell Kirk, James Burnham and Robert Nisbet, National Review cultivated the career of several younger writers, including Garry Wills, Joan Didion and John Leonard, who would shake off the conservative attachment and go their leftward ways.
National Review also helped define the conservative movement by isolating cranks from Mr. Buckley’s chosen mainstream.
“Bill was responsible or rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism,” Hugh Kenner, a biographer of Ezra Pound and a frequent contributor to National Review told The Washington Post. “Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.”
Mr. Buckley’s personal visibility was magnified by his “Firing Line” program which ran from 1966 to 1999. First carried on WOR-TV and then on the Public Broadcasting Service, it became the longest running show hosted by a single host — beating out Johnny Carson by three years. He led the conservative team in 1,504 debates on topics like “Resolved: The women’s movement has been disastrous.”
There were exchanges on foreign policy with the likes of Norman Thomas; feminism with Germaine Greer and race relations with James Baldwin. Not a few viewers thought Mr. Buckley’s toothy grin before he scored a point resembled nothing so much as a switchblade.
To New York City politician Mark Green, he purred, “You’ve been on the show close to 100 times over the years. Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet.”
But Harold Macmillan, former prime minister of Britain, flummoxed the master. “Isn’t this show over yet?” he asked.
At age 50, Mr. Buckley added two pursuits to his repertoire — he took up the harpsichord and became novelist. Some 10 of the novels are spy tales starring Blackford Oakes, who fights for the American way and bedded the Queen of England in the first book.
Others of his books included a historical novel with Elvis Presley as a significant character, another starring Fidel Castro, a reasoned critique of anti-Semitism, and journals that more than succeeded dramatizing a life of taste and wealth — his own. For example, in “Cruising Speed: A Documentary,” published in 1971, he discussed the kind of meals he liked to eat.
“Rawle could give us anything, beginning with lobster Newburgh and ending with Baked Alaska,” he wrote. “We settle on a fish chowder, of which he is surely the supreme practitioner, and cheese and bacon sandwiches, grilled, with a most prickly Riesling picked up at St. Barts for peanuts,” he wrote.
Mr. Buckley’s spirit of fun was apparent in his 1965 campaign for mayor of New York on the ticket of the Conservative Party. When asked what he would do if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount.” He got 13.4 percent of the vote.
For Murray Kempton, one of his many friends on the left, the Buckley press conference style called up “an Edwardian resident commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment to a conscript of assembled Zulus.”
Unlike his brother James who served as a United States senator from New York, Mr. Buckley generally avoided official government posts. He did serve from 1969 to 1972 as a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Commission on Information, and as a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations in 1973.
The merits of the argument aside, Mr. Buckley irrevocably proved that his brand of candor did not lend itself to public life when an Op-Ed article he wrote for The New York Times offered a partial cure for the AIDS epidemic: “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm to prevent common needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of homosexuals,” he wrote.
In his last years, as honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom came his way, Mr. Buckley gradually loosened his grip on his intellectual empire. In 1998, he ended his frenetic schedule of public speeches (some 70 a year over 40 years, he once estimated). In 1999, he stopped “Firing Line,” and in 2004, he relinquished his voting stock in National Review. He wrote his last spy novel the 11th in his series), sold his sailboat and stopped playing the harpsichord publicly.
But he began a new historical novel and kept up his columns, including one on the “bewitching power” of “The Sopranos” television series. He commanded wide attention by criticizing the Iraq war as a failure.
On April 15, 2007, his wife, the former Patricia Alden Austin Taylor, who had carved out a formidable reputation as a socialite and philanthropist but considered her role as a homemaker, mother and wife most important, died. Mr. and Mrs. Buckley called each other “Ducky.”
He is survived by his son, Christopher, of Washington, D.C.; his sisters Priscilla L. Buckley, of Sharon, Conn., Patricia Buckley Bozell, of Washington, D.C., and Carol Buckley, of Columbia, S.C.; his brothers James L., of Sharon, and F. Reid, of Camden, S.C., a granddaughter and a grandson
In the end it was Mr. Buckley’s graceful, often self-deprecating wit that endeared him to others. In his spy novel “Who’s on First,” he described the possible impact of his National Review through his character Boris Bolgin.
“ ‘Do you ever read the National Review, Jozsef?’ asks Boris Bolgin, the chief of KGB counter intelligence for Western Europe, ‘it is edited by this young bourgeois fanatic.’ ”
An earlier version of this article included an outdated reference to books Mr. Buckley published in 2007 and to the total number of books he wrote.